SAR dogs continue to provide hope worldwide for disaster struck families

Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Woman SAR dog handler & dog at Ground Zero
Days following the 9/11 crisis in New York an experienced SAR – Search and Rescue Black Labrador Retriever named Jenner looks up intently at a human responder on the scene as he sits ‘on alert’ ready-to-go back out to the devastation at the World Trade Center complex. Jenner’s human dog guardian/handler Ann Wichmann sits on coffee break (in photo center). Next to them (on photo right) is a Yellow Lab with his own dedicated human handler Julie Noyes. Image: Matt Clausen

(WNN) New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: Days after smoke and ash began to settle following one of the largest U.S. disasters in history on September 11, 2001 the devastating impacts of the loss of lives became a staggering reality. But those who were an integral part of the search attempts weren’t human. They were part of numerous talented canine teams trained to find those, dead or alive, trapped under the rubble. During response efforts at the World Trade Center’s Ground Zero there would be up to 950 dogs working with teams including civilian, government, military and police units who continued to do their best to explore and sift through 16 acres of devastation where New York’s Wall Street Twin Towers once stood.

Dogs working worldwide through search and response teams have a large edge over humans who are trying to find live or dead bodies under layers of fallen debris that often includes concrete, metal, glass and ash. It’s the dog’s nose that gives him or her this distinction.

A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than a human. This enables dogs to use scent-tracking to find living survivors, as well as those who have died during catastrophes.

“What do dogs have that we don’t? For one thing, they possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us,” says scientists over at NOVA, a popular science-based PBS TV – Public Broadcasting Service television production in the U.S. “And the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours,” continues NOVA.

Canine rescue training can take up to 1 to 4 years in the life of a dog, depending on their ability and skills. It isn’t an easy training as often dogs are taught to keep their focus ‘extra-intent’ on finding what is often hidden or buried.

Former U.S. Colorado City of Boulder Park Ranger and SAR – Search and Rescue dog handler Matt Claussen, came to the scene with a 2-year-old working dog-partner named Merlyn, a black Labrador Retriever, where they were one in over 20 working human and canine teams that arrived to work inside a specific assigned area of Ground Zero. Claussen’s goal, along with Merlyn, was to help find those lost in the crisis. Any chance to identify someone, or even part of a body, could help families identify their loved ones through DNA tissue analysis, conveyed Claussen. On the days after the U.S. crisis more than 2,500 families sat up on sleepless nights waiting for the news of their missing family members.

“We all slept on plastic cots in the Jacob Javits Convention Center [on 34th Street in New York],” outlined Claussen as he relayed part of his experience at Ground Zero. “Merlyn is a very gentle guy,” said Claussen. “I’m sure the environment and the pressure of working at night was hard on him,” he added.

“103 FEMA [U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency] dogs were there,” outlined Claussen. “This line of dogs is very very intelligent and on top of that, very trainable. The biggest ingredient for them is courage. One morning when Merlyn identified a body, I told rescuers that I needed to praise him. I needed to do that to keep working,” said Claussen. “If we get overwhelmed ourselves I don’t think the dogs could work,” he added.

During the October 2005 7.6 magnitude earthquake that hit 65 miles northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan, more than 86,000 people were killed in hours as 69,000 others were injured and needing medical assistance. Irreparable damage to 600,000 buildings that collapsed, partially or completely, left what was estimated by Oxfam one year later to total 1.8 million displaced homeless persons.

Immediately following the natural catastrophe rescue dogs from regions including Great Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, among others, flew quickly into the to the earthquakes epicenter to try to find anyone alive under the rubble.

“Roads had disappeared, 35 percent of the buildings were completely flattened, and of the remainder, all were damaged to some degree,” outlined Chris Pritchard in 2005. Pritchard also worked as a rescuer during the earthquake in Haiti and is now affiliated with INSARAG – International Search and Rescue Advisory Group that works today around the globe through rescue efforts coordinated with UNOCHA – United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “I made note of potential areas to search if we had the means and opportunity to reach them,” continued Pritchard.

“The dog teams worked a maximum of 18 hours a day for the first 5 days, after which the tasks started to slow down due to more search and rescue teams arriving at our location,” he added.

While the damage for Pakistan in 2005 marked one of the largest natural disasters in history, the swift response of international dog rescue teams became vital to those who needed desperately to rebuild their lives. The immediate vulnerabilities for those on-the-ground included little-to-no safe water to drink along with a severe shortage of adequate health care facilities and toilet facilities as 7,475 medically unassisted births were estimated to continue to occur in the region monthly.

“This was one of the most successful search and rescue missions ever mounted,” said Pritchard. “The UK teams rescued a total of 13 people [alive], 7 in Islamabad and 6 from the Muzaffarabad area. This was approximately 50 percent of the total rescues carried out by all the international rescue teams responding to the disaster. The success of the deployment was down to the fact that we were mobilized quickly, arrived in the country early, and the teams demonstrated the highest level of professionalism, working in extreme conditions in a country whose infrastructure had totally collapsed.”

Global rescue isn’t always just a strict process of following a certain formula. It can be overwhelming to SAR dogs who don’t have proper training, but for those who have been been specially chosen to receive ongoing training it is a process that highlights a dog’s ability to focus and find and follow successfully with the task before them. Dogs are often one of the most important parts of rescue teams who take action to help under crisis conditions. Inside the U.S., dogs have also been used to help save people trapped after the Oklahoma City bombing. Other dogs have also been used in rescue attempts following mud or snow avalanches in the mountainous regions of the U.S.

On April 20, 1995 Wilma Melville wasn’t sure her female FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency Labrador Retriever named Murphy could handle a crisis call to go immediately to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing in the U.S.

Murphy had never before had a chance to be deployed to a crisis this large and her the level of her performance would be unknown. But she was one one of the best Search and Rescue dogs to show up during the ten day rescue effort.

New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue dog handler & dog
In New Zealand Janelle Mackie has worked closely with her funny mixed-breed mutt of a dog named Cairo for NZ USAR – New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue during the region’s natural earthquake catastrophes. Image: NZ USAR

“It wasn’t the dead as much as the survivors,” said Melville who began training dogs as the founder of the Search Dog Foundation based in Ojai, California U.S., when she turned 54-years-of-age. “People who would literally ask you, on a daily basis, ‘Did you find my wife?’ then show you a photograph. It’s like someone reaches into your chest and squeezes your heart,” she continued.

“Dogs are so connected to people,” outlined former U.S. City of Boulder Park Ranger and dog handler Matt Claussen to WNN describing his rescue efforts at Ground Zero. “If the humans around them are stressed they will start picking up on it,” he shared.

“We would work with the dogs to get them to forget the stress and be happy,” added Claussen outlining his days at Ground Zero.

During the rescue that followed the 9/11 tragedy in New York City, Claussen’s SAR dog Merlyn was also accompanied by his dog father, an experienced and recognized SAR Black Labrador named Jenner whose training and love was nurtured by a human mother, Colorado rescue dog trainer and handler Ann Wichmann, who was the home guardian of both Merlyn and Jenner.

Wichmann accompanied Claussen to Ground Zero as part of the FEMA Colorado Task Force team where her experience in handling and knowing the limits that the dogs could withstand under ‘rescue stress’ was valuble.

“Jenner was horrified to be there [at the World Trade Center],” she outlined describing her first impressions arriving at the sight of the disaster in 2001.

“He [Jenner] just looked back at me and just telegraphed ‘What happend here?’,” Wichmann shared in a one-on-one interview.

A key ingredient that dog rescuers look for in choosing an SAR dog is intelligence. It’s also a dog’s ability to stay engaged and on target. Dogs who work under the heightened stress of rescue and search missions must also have the ability not to drift their attention as they stay closely connected to the environment around them.

Many of the most talented dogs also often have the ability to bring a tangible kind of love and calm to rescuers, first responders and the rescued who often face some of the darkest up-close images and memories of devastation. But SAR dogs can also be affected themselves by the trauma and fear in their environment.

Wichmann and Claussen were at first misunderstood by some of the other non-dog human rescue teams at Ground Zero as they worked to smile, laugh and relax as much as possible in front of their dogs. Soon they convinced the other human rescuers who worked side-by-side with them and their dogs that a policy to appear ‘unstressed’ while working with rescuer dogs was essential. As they worked they set a soft pace of calm, letting the dogs know that “everything is ok.”

Finding someone alive within the huge amounts of wreckage, known as ‘The Pile’ at the demolished site where the Wall Street buildings lay for weeks in hotbeds, was not something anyone expected. But the work to find dead bodies, or any human remains, was a distinct possiblity. On arrival the dogs were ready and set to work.  Their actions came from pure desire, training and expertise. No guessing just action. And it also came from a concise and clear purity of motive and movement.

When a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand in September 2010 first responder Janelle Mackie was one of the dog handlers on the NZ USAR – New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue team in Christchurch who jumped in first. Her dog Cairo, a 7-year-old cross-bread mutt, who had been trained as a search dog at the age-of-2, was also ready.

“Humans shed up to 40,000 skin cells every minute and it is these tiny particles floating in the air that USAR dogs are trained to locate,” outlined NZ USAR. The key to training the dogs to respond with a specific correctly included careful pre-screening in choosing the right dogs for the job.

“My life was totally ‘search and rescue’ for ten to twelve years. It takes a lot of dedication,” says Jeanne Scholl, who like Claussen is a former U.S. State of Colorado – City of Boulder Park Ranger. In the 1990s Scholl was also a SAR dog trainer. “[During the time] I was an EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], a firefighter and a ranger,” she said.

“My Golden Retriever Shana was my first and only search dog,” shared Scholl. “In training I would help set up an article for Shana to search and she would find anything that had a human scent on it. [During the process] I would tell her ‘go find’ and she would find even the smallest things, like a set of keys.”

SAR dog handler Matt Claussen New York, Ground Zero 9/11
Search and rescue dog handler Matt Claussen with his search partner-dog Merlyn take a much needed break under search lights at 5am in the morning as round the clock search efforts continued in Ground Zero New York September 2001. Image: Matt Claussen

But the key to success in training a dog to be successful in SAR requires that they have that  ‘crazy desire’ to find things, explained Scholl. “You don’t work them hard though. It’s a game of fun instead. You get them to search as a mental and physical exercise and they love it,” she continued.

After her training Shana did help on numerous search rescues. She even managed to find a wildlife poacher’s hidden rifle in high altitude brush in Colorado. While ongoing days, months and years of canine rescue training can be hard, it can also definitely be fun for the dogs, Scholl added.

“Canines with high ‘toy drive’ are used for urban search and rescue. It is a game of ‘hide and seek’ for the dog,” says U.S. agency FEMA in an online public release covering the canine’s role in Urban Search & Rescue.

But it is important to remember, some dogs can become psychologically scarred by their experiences while rescuing. Much of this has to do with a dog’s ability to detect and deeply share with the emotions of the humans that surround them. Crisis and high levels of fear among humans during disaster can dramatically raise a dog’s stress hormone levels, says a discovery made only a few years ago by Japanese scientists.

When urinary cortisol stress levels for dogs who were abandoned in the town of Fukushima, Japan were charted following Japan’s tsunami crisis, the dogs who were closest to human beings during the crisis were shown to have over 5 to 10 times higher cortisol levels than other dogs who had also been abandoned in Japan earlier.

The stress for the dogs was not necessarily only because the Fukushima dogs were abandoned, the study revealed. It had to do with the dogs emotional reaction to witnessing human fear, emotion and suffering during the crisis itself.

“The persistence of high cortisol levels in this study is unlikely to be attributable to a stress reaction to a new environment; it is probably observed because of the unusual crisis experience in Fukushima. In fact, cortisol levels for the first few days after arrival were 5–10-fold higher in dogs from Fukushima than in dogs from other areas,” outlines the study.

While a dog’s use has been criticized by some animal rights activists, sniffer dogs who are trained to use their intense sense of smell to help in rescue are also used today to help locate landmines found in global regions affected by war and conflict. In 2013 mine sniffing dogs were part of 23,132 searches conducted by the United Nations in Somalia. Other landmine searches using sniffer dogs have also been conducted in Iraq, Azerbaijan, Mozambique, South Sudan, Lebanon, and many other regions.

Today bomb sniffing dogs, also commonly called ‘bomb dogs’, are trained extensively to know how to safely detect bombs and bomb-making materials. To prevent any accidental injuries or fatalities to dogs or humans who are participants of landmine searches, the dogs are trained to sit down immediately whenever they catch even the slightest whiff of a bomb. This hopefully works to help keep bomb dogs away from direct and ‘too-close’ contact with a device that might explode.

“Dogs don’t need to be taught how to smell, of course, but they do need to be taught where to smell – along the seams of a suitcase, say, or underneath a pallet where the vapors that are heavier than air settle,” outlines the Smithsonian Magazine in their 2013 story on bomb dogs.

The use of sniffer dogs for bomb detection has now expanded exponentially to include use of dogs at airports as well as government or public events. The dogs have also been used in courtroom lobbies and sporting events, especially since the occurrence of Boston Marathon tragedy, where two undetected bombs injured 264 people and killed two others in the U.S. in 2013.

But not all sniffer dogs are used to detect dangerous human environments. Some are working on the edge of a new environmental movement.

Some dogs who are especially sensitive and talented as sniffer dogs are now being trained to detect endangered sea life, like the swiftly disappearing orca whale. To do this the dogs must sniff over the water for the whales as they work to give signs that will help direct the boat to move toward a detected orca. During training they are taught how to detect orca feces up to a mile away from the whale’s location within 30 minutes from the time the orca has followed a specific path on the sea.

This is part of an expanding new search science that can now compliment the work of SAR dogs who continue to work in the trenches of disaster.

“Merlyn is very very handsome and is still such a delightful funny dog,” shares Ann Wichmann as she describes the  ‘once young’ son of Jenner the Ground Zero SAR dog hero. Remembering the father and son dog duo like a mother who went to the tragedies of New York cautious but proud, Wichmann will also never forget fellow dog handler Matt Clausen or any of those unforgettable days.

“He [Merlyn] just turned 15 on November 14th, 2013,” she added.


In Switzerland SAR – Search and Rescue dogs have been part of international disaster response teams for over 40 years. REDOG is the most respected training schools for dogs inside and outside Switzerland today. REDOG responder Elias Kult and his Golden Retriever dog Collyn were pivotal in the live rescue of two small children following a magnitude 7.4 earthquake that directly hit the town of Gölcük, Turkey on the Gulf of Izmit on August 17, 1999 . As the dust settled following the disaster those still living realized buildings in the waterfront town were completely destroyed as they sunk 30 feet into the water. At the time National Geographic reported that “tens of thousands are dead” as 250,000 people were left homeless in only a few hours. Ten years later Elias Kult met the two children whose lives he and search and rescue dog hero Collyn had saved. 


A heroic Golden Retriever SAR – Search and Rescue dog named Riley, who passed away on February 25, 2010, was the last surviving SAR dog who served with the U.S. Pennsylvania Task Force 1 FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team during the Ground Zero World Trade Center search and recovery effort after the region was left still partially burning following the terrible events of 9/11. This incredible video was shot by Lou Angeli, a member of the response team, as a tribute to the incredible work of Riley late in the morning on September 13, 2001 while Riley was hoisted high above ‘The Pit’ at Ground Zero to an area being searched by the team from Pennsylvania.


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As a human rights journalist with a career that began in public radio broadcasting through an internship at Pacifica radio station WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C., WNN founder Lys Anzia has a strong dedication in bringing the highest quality journalism available to the public. In addition to Anzia’s featured stories on WNN, her written and editorial work can also be seen on WUNRN – Women’s UN Report Network, Vital Voices, Women’s Media Center, World Bank and UNESCO publications, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reliefweb, The Guardian News Development Network and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, among others.

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